At number 89 on the World’s Best Restaurants list, Rainer Becker’s Zuma is one of only three restaurants in the Middle East to feature in 2016 – here’s why it stands out…
RESTAURANT: Zuma Dubai
LOCATION: Dubai, UAE
WORLD’S BEST RESTAURANTS RANK: 88 (2015), 89 (2016)
MICHELIN STARS: Michelin not published in the UAE
FOOD STYLE: Contemporary Japanese
STANDOUT DISH: Gyuhire sumibiyaki karami zuke: spicy beef tenderloin with sesame, red chilli and sweet soy
TASING MENU: Signature menu Dhs595 ($162) per person; Premium menu Dhs795 ($217) per person, both feature “an extensive selection of dishes chosen by the head chef”
Zuma Dubai is unique; it’s the only restaurant in Dubai that’s managed to keep its footing on the World’s Best Restaurants list since it joined its ranks. Dubai’s Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire and La Petite Maison have both made appearances, but lost their spots in recent years, with La Petite Maison being reinstated on the 2016 list in June. Perhaps more remarkable, considering Dubai’s insanely fickle diners, who are always looking for the hottest new opening (of which there is around one a week outside of Ramadan and the sweltering summer months), is that Zuma has remained popular with punters. There’s no such thing as a quiet day here.
Located in Dubai International Finance Centre, lunch time trade is driven by the emirate’s number-crunchers, and by night they’re back to let off steam, joined by interlopers from other parts of town, keen to tell their friends they hang out at Zuma. When, for limited periods only, the restaurant hosts that most beloved of UAE dining traditions, the Friday brunch complete with free-flowing drinks, it’s a scramble to secure a table. Ask any ‘influencer’ in Dubai where they like to eat and Zuma will be one of their top two choices (La Petite Maison – regulars call it LPM, so you know they’re regulars – is the other favourite, despite losing its World’s Best ranking).
So, what is Zuma’s magic formula?
Famously, His Highness Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai, is a patron; probably the biggest influencer of them all, he has 1.7 million Instagram followers (and counting) – but then he’s not one for sharing pictures of his dinner.
Zuma is admittedly less expensive than some other high-end restaurants in the UAE. The ebisu lunch menu (miso soup, two starters and one main) goes for a Dhs130 ($35), excluding the unpopular 10 per cent DIFC dining fee (yes, there’s a dining fee in this part of town!). On the drinks menu, you can get an Old Fashioned for Dhs55 ($15) – around the corner, yet another recent DIFC opening is charging twice that for the same cocktail. But you could also quickly drop Dhs205 ($56) starting with the tempting salmon and tuna tartare with oscietra caviar, followed by Dhs750 ($205) on a cut of Wagyu with truffle mayo (both good decisions, despite what your bank manager may say), so it’s not the place to watch your pennies either.
Design-wise, the humble wooden façade does nothing to betray the vast cavernous interior. It’s a shock, at first, finding this hidden world packed with people, who look small in the distance from the perspective of the doorway, chattering away, chinking drinks, while a glass-sided elevator glides up and down between floors; there are three including the basement car park’s entrance.
Created by Tokyo-based Noriyoshi Muramatsu, key features include salvaged rusted-steel walls and a bamboo sculpture raining down through a central void between the two storeys; the restaurant is on the lower split-level and there’s a late-night bar on top. Diners can check in on the top floor at a gleaming teak counter manned by a row of extremely svelte well-groomed ladies, all in black, who are noticeably adept at managing the stairs in their towering heels. These hostesses never bother with the lift, which is mainly used to transport diners from the basement car park, where a valet welcome awaits, which is so very convenient in Dubai, but curb appeal is completely lost. Park and walk to the main entrance if you can be bothered and want the full Zuma arrival experience, at least on your first visit.
Car park aside, from hostesses to high ceilings, Zuma is certainly attractive, but that’s not exceptional in image-conscious Dubai where millions of dollars are blown on restaurant interiors, only to be revamped, rebranded or closed down within a year – did I mention Dubai diners are easily bored?
Sleek design, prime location and reasonable pricing are important factors in winning hearts, minds and, more importantly, custom, but Zuma has more than that. The winning formula is in its consistency – not only in maintaining the same high standards of service and cooking, but also in maintaining the same menu favourites throughout the years, and its multiple branches. Ever since founding chef Rainer Becker created Zuma’s most popular signature dishes – a process that began back in London at the inaugural branch, which opened in 2002 – they’ve remained on Zuma menus throughout the world, appealing to the rising number of global citizens, an aspirational clientele, who can order their favourite marinated black cod wrapped in a hoba leaf or spicy beef hot off the robata grill at any Zuma branch.
Today, in addition to London and Dubai, you can find a Zuma in Hong Kong, Istanbul, Miami, Bangkok, Abu Dhabi, New York, Rome, Las Vegas and even Turkey’s Datca Peninsula. “There are many dishes from the very first days of Zuma still on the menu, because they became signature dishes over the years and people expect them in every restaurant,” says Becker, but that’s doesn’t prevent new dishes from appearing. “We also evolve the menu,” adds Becker, “which keeps the chefs motivated and excited. Once the customers accept [the new dishes], we switch them with main-menu dishes that don’t sell so well, and that’s a very healthy process.”
Like X-Factor hopefuls, in-house chefs audition their creations in the hope of seeing their ensembles make it to the main menu, an accolade only to be topped by said creation becoming a global Zuma signature. One new dish on Zuma Dubai’s menu showing great potential is the Hokkaido milk ice cream and wafers with Japanese granola. I braced myself for a sugar rush, but my taste buds relaxed into a sea of creamy milk flavours, pleasantly devoid of sweetness. The wafers were so delicate they disintegrated beneath the pressure of my fingers, so I spooned them down with the ice cream, letting them melt in my mouth like snowflakes. The granola added notes of salted caramel and popcorn, and reminded me of the cakes we used to makes with Rice Krispies cereal when we were kids; nostalgia has always been one of my favourite ingredients.
Another new addition in Zuma Dubai is soy paper rolls loaded with veg, topped with cubes of gently seared fish and dressed tartare. Soy paper is becoming a popular alternative to nori rolls for those who don’t like the taste of seaweed – but I love seaweed and felt its rich mineral taste was lacking.
Nigiri is still on the menu. It looks a little sad in comparison to Zuma’s more ornate presentations, but I confess I didn’t taste it. Since nigiri flooded the market becoming a staple in pre-packed ready-meals stacked in fridges of countless service stations and supermarkets, all sugar-bonded rice with a mere slither of fish on top, it’s lost all appeal for me. This is a dish I’d replace, but I assume there’s a sea of nigiri fans out there who would turn on me, otherwise why else is it still on the menu?
Menu keepers include Zuma’s sweet-savoury flaky black miso cod, which Becker says takes three days to marinate; yuza sea bass with salmon roe, the perfect combination of citrus acidity and rich salty roe; the tuna tataki in its moreish chilled soup of ponzu, soy, chilli and daikon topped with crunchy garlic crisps; and the buttery sashimi, so good I ordered it twice.
Even better than all of these were two dishes – perhaps the most simple –seasoned and grilled on Zuma’s ubiquitous robata: the asparagus, smoky, charred but still bursting with moisture, topped with sesame seeds and tangy wafu sauce (made from soy, oil, rice vinegar and mirin), and the beautiful spicy beef tenderloin in a slick sweet soy marinade, pre-sliced, like a considerate parent might. I couldn’t stop popping these gorgeously griddled bites into my mouth, conveniently forgetting Zuma’s izakaya (pub) food sharing concept.
It seems mandatory for all restaurants to serve chocolate fondant these days, but Zuma’s take the cake, replacing it’s molten chocolate centre with oozing chocolate caramel, and adding extra bite with a crunchy praline base.
The culinary cult classics are definitely at the core of Becker’s business success, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The German creating Japanese cuisine with Indian business partner Arjun Waney has come a long way. Following the success of Zuma, with a focus on Becker’s favourite piece of cooking kit, the robata grill, the duo went on to launch Roka in 2004, which now has branches across London, and then came New York rotisserie Oblix, which opened to rave reviews in 2013 in The Shard, one of Britain’s most famous landmarks. But what’s has been Becker’s proudest moment so far? There have been many, he says, but when his good friend Nobu Matsuhisa came to Zuma and told him, “Rainer, now you are competition” is possibly his favourite. ✪
WORLDINER ADDRESS BOOK
Zuma Dubai, Gate Village 6, DIFC, Dubai, UAE, +971 4 425 5660, firstname.lastname@example.org, zumarestaurant.com
MORE IMAGES FROM ZUMA DUBAI